This interview originally appeared on elephant journal on September 11, 2011.
“I feel like we’re right on the cusp of a pretty big shift in mental health services, recovery fields and many kinds of healing and treatment modalities.” ~Sue Jones
Devoted to service, in May 2009 I sat in a circle comprised of seva-dedicated yoga practitioners in a conference room that looked more like a temple, provided by Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, N.Y. and gifted to the Yoga Service Council—a collaboration of organizations and individuals committed to bringing yoga to at-risk populations.
Across from me sat a vibrant, thoughtful, and articulate woman and whenever she spoke, our group would hush, her words hanging in the air like semi-weighted balloons. This woman is Sue Jones, and she has something to say, not just via communicating on the surface but by bearing the weight of a universal message and delivering it to our doorstep.
Sue Jones is the founder of yogaHOPE, a non-profit outreach organization dedicated to improving health and wellbeing through increased access to yoga-based mindfulness tools for underserved women in recovery. Sue comes to the world of working with individuals affected by trauma from a personal platform. Her commitment to rolling out her yoga mat while in the depths of deep despair groomed her to become one of the most recognized names in healing trauma for women-specific populations. Launched into this field as part of her own recovery process, Sue took it upon herself to immerse herself in the deepest knowledge available for those wishing to understand how trauma effects the body, mind, and soul. Developing approaches to working with women recovering from and dealing with trauma, Sue affiliates, partners and Tweets with some of the biggest and brightest names in the field of trauma and research. Having been interviewed on CNN and appearing in the New York Times, I had the honor of sitting down with Sue at the recent Being Yoga conference at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, NY. to discuss her feelings around the importance of delivering yoga to at-risk populations affected by trauma.
Diane Ferraro: Sue, you’re a presenter at this year’s Being Yoga Conference, leading a workshop called “Addiction Recovery….”
Sue Jones: “Yoga for Addiction Recovery.”
DF (duh) Thank you Sue. Welcome to the interview.
SJ (laughing) Thank you.
DF: Tell us how yogaHOPE was founded, and what brought you to Being Yoga 2011.
SJ: About six years ago, I had my own personal challenges coming up in my life. My own yoga practice, which I had then recently re-discovered, was instrumental in getting me through each day so that I could come through that period…(begins to chuckle)…fairly intact. (Deep breath) It was very profound, and I often say that it saved my life. So once I was on the other side of that experience, I felt compelled to make the practice available to other women who were feeling as hopeless as I had been feeling. That’s how I started the organization and we’ve been going for about five years now. I guess it was maybe two or three years ago when I was invited by Mark Lilly, founder of Street Yoga, to attend a conference here at Omega that assembled the founders and directors of about a dozen organizations bringing yoga to underserved and at-risk populations, including Off the Mat, Into the World. What came out of that gathering was the Yoga Service Council. It feels really good to mobilize people who are inspired to do this kind of service work. I was asked by Omega to present at Being Yoga 2011, and I said “Sure!”
DF: You are virtually the only teacher at this year’s Being Yoga Conference presenting a workshop for an at-risk population. What do you think about the phenomenon of how yoga has exploded over the last ten years, and how a lot of people in the mental health and wellness industry are using yoga as a tool to bring these powerful practices to at-risk populations?
SJ: I feel like we’re right on the cusp of a pretty big shift in mental health services, recovery fields and many kinds of healing and treatment modalities. The shift is occurring because there are so many people who are beginning to practice yoga, and the numbers are increasing each year. We’re going to reach a critical mass as these yoga practitioners who are also social workers, therapists, and people who work with healing populations or at-risk populations, will personally experience how yoga creates shifts in the way they see themselves and how they interact with the world. They’re naturally going to want to bring this experience of yoga to the populations they serve. I don’t think we’ve quite tipped the scales yet, but the fact that I was invited here to teach a workshop to an at-risk population is a really good sign that we’re headed in that direction, and that’s very encouraging.
DF: Absolutely. And the Yoga Service Council is going to be hosting a conference at Omega in May 2012 around this very topic of bringing yoga to at-risk populations….
SJ: (emphasizing) Which is super exciting…
DF: (continuing to emphasize) So exciting.
SJ: There are many different populations that could benefit from these types of healing modalities including at-risk children, people recovering from addiction, women who have experienced violent relationships, and anyone who has experienced trauma that has affected their life. Any kind of trauma will affect a person’s life in some way or another. These mindfulness practices are starting to show up in lots of scientific studies showing how they create changes in the brain. What is really going to push this movement forward is the science and the data that is coming out because people sort of need proof. This society kind of needs proof that these yoga practices work.
DF: We were speaking with Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., a Stanford psychologist and meditation teacher, on a recent show. She is well-rooted in the academic world and she said “Look guys, science can’t prove everything.”
DF: However, there’s a lot of evidence leaning toward the idea that yoga contains methodologies that inspire healing, and anyone who has experienced yoga on some level can feel that. As you’ve told me in previous talks we’ve had, “The issues are in the tissues,” so once we start working with the physical self, and getting the issues worked out through physical therapy, we’ll get to the root of the trauma. Tell us about the work and the research that you are studying and culminating around yoga and trauma, how trauma sits in the body and how we touch it.
SJ: We’re doing a lot of research on how trauma affects the brain and the body, and how these yoga practices counter those effects. No matter what population it is that you’re working with, whether it’s people recovering from addiction, combat veterans, or kids in correctional facilities, you’ll find their issues are rooted in early childhood traumas. Trauma gets a negative rap, and some people say “Let’s not use the ‘T’ word,” but really it’s just these adverse childhood experiences which cause changes in the brain which eventually lead to the inability to emotionally regulate. They lead to “Affect Dysregulation.” What that means is that when a sensation comes up in a person’s body, there’s an inability to put space between feeling that sensation and the person’s response to it, their decision, what they’re going to do. There’s a lot more to it, it’s very complicated and interwoven, but that’s essentially what’s at the root of it. What we’re discovering through the studies that are coming out on mindfulness practices, pranayama, and compassion meditation, is that the very center of the brain where the activity diminishes causing Affect Dysregulation is the very area of the brain that these mindfulness practices begin to activate once again. So it’s not just kind of a nice idea—we’re actually seeing that these brain centers that are housing Affect Dysregulation, which then leads to the addictive or self-harm behaviors, are actually being healed and reactivated by mindfulness practices.
DF: Gatherings like the upcoming Yoga Service Council Conference in May 2012 at Omega Institute for Holistic Studies brings a cadre of well-respected, influential teachers together for people interested in teaching yoga to at-risk populations or learning how yoga can assist with their own trauma. When we show up as a yoga community and we want to work with at-risk populations, what would you say is the best first step?
SJ: Take a training with an organization providing direct service on the front line. While prospective teachers are very well intentioned and coming from the heart, in order to work with at-risk populations, there are a lot of things that prospective teachers need to know about teaching a population that is recovering from trauma. For instance, it cannot be a power vinyasa class. There is a lot to understand around how to deliver information, and it’s important to deliver it in a specific way. If you wish to work with at-risk populations, the best first step would be to start educating yourself through trainings or seminars and follow the breadcrumbs from there.
DF: You also provide training for teachers wishing to assist with healing touch. Could you talk a little bit about this because what I think is somewhat overlooked in most yoga trainings is the power of healing, non-sexual, non-violent, non-intrusive touch.
SJ: I’m a little bit of a rebel I guess in the “trauma world” because the western sensibility is that you just don’t touch trauma survivors. The women that we’re working with at yogaHOPE are recovering from early interpersonal traumas, and they have learned to distrust touch or closeness. We focus on touching these women in a way that can allow them to feel safe and to return back to their bodies. The touch that we give them is very nurturing. It’s understood that there are parts of the body where touch can feel safe and there are parts of the body where touch, at least for these women, is never going to feel safe, and we educate our teachers and our assistants about where these parts of the body are and how to sense these women’s ability to receive touch. Our teachers are not forcing touch, but rather allowing for the receptivity of touch. There’s a non-verbal conversation going on that could be interpreted as “I’m going to touch you, and it’s safe, and when you feel safe I’ll know it, and we’ll go someplace together.” It’s a really beautiful energetic exchange.
DF: Touch therapy isn’t provided in many yoga teacher trainings or workshops.
SJ: No it’s not, you’re right. I’m trying to spearhead this movement, and I’m excited about it because it’s been a very healing experience for me.
DF: You’re coming from a place of knowledge because something has affected you in a certain way and then you are able to share that knowledge with someone else, and I think that is the truest, deepest, and most poignant experience between a teacher and someone who is receiving that teaching.
SJ: In order to allow these women to feel trusting of touch, they have to be touched in a safe and nurturing way. It’s not going to happen if they’re never touched. They will feel continually distrustful. My own personal experience is exactly that, so I feel passionate about it.
DF: Where do you see yogaHOPE going within the next several years? I know you’re on a very strong streak to bring yogaHOPE to yet another level.
SJ: To have the most profound impact on these populations, we needed to have some programs that were very objective-focused and were replicable so that we didn’t’ have constrictions around how many facilities we could be in or how many geographical locations we could be in. It has taken a while but over the past couple of years we’ve done a tremendous amount of research and we’ve developed a program that we piloted and are now revising. The pilot was extremely successful which was very exciting. We’re revising it with everything we learned in the pilot and re-piloting it at a prison in Massachusetts for women only, and they’re very excited about the program. Where I see yogaHOPE in a year is that we’ve got the program fully designed, fully revised, fully evaluated, with trainings for anyone who wants to facilitate this program, and that we have been placed in several facilities in and around the Boston area, not just yogaHOPE facilitators but the social workers and the therapists that work in those facilities are now running the program internally, so that we can actually empower these facilities to run this program as one of their regular treatment modalities which is going to help them create this holistic healing environment. The response and the enthusiasm from the mental health community in Boston is very, very positive.
DF: We’re going to keep close track of you throughout 2011, 2012, and into 2013!
DF: And then we’ll see you again at Omega at the Yoga Service Council Conference in May 2012.
SJ: Oh yes, I’ll definitely be there.
For more information about Sue Jones, yogaHOPE, and to learn about upcoming workshops and trainings, please visit yogahope.org. To learn more about the Yoga Service Council and the upcoming conference to be hosted at Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in May, visit yogaservicecouncil.org, call Omega, and check out the Yoga Service Council Conference invitation on Facebook. “Like” this space for updates on a new website coming soon.
 Affect Dysregulation is among the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) but is a result of diminished activity and the down-regulation of receptors in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the center for emotional regulation, empathy and feelings of contentment and happiness. When the prefrontal cortex experiences diminished activity, even a stressor that is perceived or controllable will feel inescapable and life threatening. Activation in the prefrontal cortex results in the ability to emotionally regulate. In one study, scientists subjected rats to an inescapable shock while they artificially activated the prefrontal cortex. The result was that the stress response did not interfere with the rats’ ability to escape the stressor. Additionally in this study, the PFC activity in the rats was artificially diminished while the rats were subjected to escapable shock. The rats stress response was so great that they were unable to escape though the shock was escapable. (Maiar, Amat, Baratta, Paul & Watkins 2006) In human beings, this would be comparable to emotions being so great (experienced as sensations in the body) that we are incapable of moving through a stressor with a sense of control. Cumulative interpersonal trauma has been shown to significantly predict Avoidance Dysfunction because the prefrontal cortex receptors are down-regulated and the survivor has low affect regulation capacity. (Briere, et al. 2010)